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On the national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., more than 53 years after his assassination in 1968, voting rights remain in the center ring of American politics.
With the party primary season already underway, Texas is busy in court, defending restrictive new voting laws and challenges to new political maps for its congressional delegation, the state Legislature and the State Board of Education that were drawn after the 2020 census.
The state’s eligible voters have two more weeks to register in time to vote in those primaries. Early voting begins in four weeks. The March 1 primary elections are in six weeks.
But the rules of engagement are still being debated in the courts, in Congress and in the campaigns themselves.
The state of Texas was sued over its new political maps before the governor had signed them — a signal that the never-ending cycle of litigation over redistricting is alive and well. That early suit wasn’t unexpected in a state that has been caught violating protections for voters of color in every decade since the Voting Rights Act took effect in 1965. A second lawsuit challenging the maps landed right after Gov. Greg Abbott signed the legislation, and the U.S. Department of Justice later joined the dogpile.
That litigation will likely last for years. In the short term, an adverse court ruling could force the state to delay its primary elections while the maps are revised or replaced. That’s what happened before the 2012 elections that followed redistricting.
This year’s candidates have already filed for office; drawing new maps and delaying the primary could reopen the filing to new people.
The restrictions on voting approved by legislators and the governor during last year’s special sessions have also gone to court. Those are statewide changes, spurred by pandemic-inspired voting practices in 2020 in the state’s biggest county, like drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting and sending mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters, whether they requested them or not.
That legislation prompted Democrats in the Texas House to walk out at the end of the regular session to prevent a vote, and later, to leave the state for Washington, D.C., to block consideration in special sessions.
One reason they chose Washington was to lobby members of Congress to pass voting legislation that would override legislation like what was then being considered in Texas.
Congress didn’t get to it until late last year, after the Texas legislation had passed — and after opponents filed federal lawsuits to stop it.
That has turned into the imbroglio of the month, as the White House and the U.S. Senate have locked horns over Democrats’ proposed overhaul of the country’s electoral system.
Politico pulled together a lengthy list of ideas now included in the federal bill, which has grown to more than 700 pages.
It would require same-day voter registration and automatic registration when people get their driver’s licenses, expanding vote-by-mail options to all voters, adding to the list of documents that can be used for voter ID, and barring restrictions on food and water for people waiting in line to vote.
It would make Election Day a federal holiday and reinstate “preclearance” laws that require states with histories of discrimination — like Texas — to get federal permission before putting new voting and election laws in place.
It would ban partisan gerrymandering, the practice of drawing political maps to unfairly favor one political party and hobble another.
It would make it more difficult to interfere with or harass the people who count votes, keep most voting machinery disconnected from the internet and require paper ballots in most systems.
It even gets into campaign finance, attempting to force disclosure from organizations that currently don’t have to disclose their sources of funds — so-called dark money operations.
That bill is in trouble, with Senate Republicans holding firm against it and a couple of Democrats whose votes are critical saying they will not support it. The Texas Democratic legislators who decamped to Washington to lobby for it may be in for another disappointment.
In the meantime, the state’s new voting and election laws remain in effect and, like the political maps, in the hands of federal judges who will decide whether state and federal lawmakers are fortifying or dismantling Americans’ and Texans’ right to vote.
It was a fight 50 years ago, and it still is.
Disclosure: Politico has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.